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The sun emits enormous amounts of energy, but we can easily deflect its widely dispersed power by using an umbrella, sunscreen, clothing etc. In contrast, a laser emits very little energy, but it is a highly concentrated beam, providing the power to cut through mortar, steel, flesh, and bone. What a significant difference!

​There are lessons to be learned from this when studying.  Students might disperse or hyperfocus cognitive power and achieve very different results.  When individuals have difficulty concentrating, it is important to consider the possible impact of basic requirements.  Is the individual having appropriate sleep, nutrition, exercise, and relaxing breaks to optimise their cognitive focus and academic performance?  It is critical to check these elements before considering the possibility of a cognitive dysfunction related to attention that might be negatively impacting the student's learning and academic performance.

Bright individuals are not exempt from attentional difficulties; these can co-exist with high ability; however high ability can delay or obscure an underlying difficulty with focus – just as attentional difficulties can delay or obscure the identification of a student's heightened cognitive abilities.  Add to this mix the neural changes that occur as the adolescent brain is restructured. This process can amplify any underlying attentional difficulties or mimic attentional difficulties.  Parents might initially wonder about what is causing the difficulties, but it is important to seek advice from a specialist who sees a wide range of young people, who can identify specific issues, diagnose, and advise appropriate interventions, if required.

Most high-ability youth do not require as many repetitions as the general population.  As a result, many cognitively capable youths 'out-sourced' revision to the teacher who regularly delivered new concepts in multiple ways to encourage less able students to learn, inadvertently allowing capable students to 'cruise' through many years of school. Difficulties with focus may only become apparent when there is a combination of factors: a student enters a selective learning environment where there are many cognitively capable students; adolescent neural restructuring occurs, and the curriculum intensifies – both in pace and complexity.  Pre-existing patterns of learning may no longer be sufficient to achieve with the different academic demands.

Concerned parents may be wondering what is going on if there are concerns about a student's difficulty with concentration.  Where there are no underlying attentional difficulties, a student may need to adjust to the demands of the new environment so they can perform academically.  Developing self-awareness, learning new study techniques, changing behavioural patterns that contribute to concentration may be sufficient.  Where a student is unable to attend, it may be that the current environment has amplified pre-existing difficulties – making these more apparent – and intervention might now be required.

​© Michele Juratowitch

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Last reviewed 29 July 2022
Last updated 29 July 2022